Sepp Blatter has gone, but Fifa hasn’t changed. His legacy will be on display next summer: a festival of football glorifying one of the world’s most appalling regimes. Enough is enough, it’s time to turn the TV off.
A corrupt dictator who dominated his people for decades pictured, here, with Vladimir Putin.
Boycott is a depressing word. It conjures images of handmade badges and self-righteous hectoring, and it carries everywhere with it the damp-washing whiff of inevitable failure. Even saying the word aloud drains the energy from the room. But, in Russia 2018, I think boycotts have found a target that’s both deserving and, perhaps surprisingly, vulnerable.
The next World Cup is taking place in one of the most corrupt, repressive regimes in the world, and one that’s the leading cause of global instability. It’s happening in a nation that should be an international outcast, not the host of the world’s game.
You already knew this, of course. But repeated exposure has dulled us to both Fifa’s corruption and Russia’s dictatorship. So, before I tell you why this boycott can actually have an impact, please allow me 30 seconds to remind you of the moral case for it.
Russia is a place where a small class of people is looting an entire nation. Simply telling the truth there can get you killed. It is a place that murders its critics with impunity, even here in Britain. Where the dictator’s opponents can be gunned down in front of the Kremlin.
A place that has almost single-handedly brought athletics to its knees with systematic doping. Where the entire of its 2014 World Cup squad is under investigation for doping and where even Fifa admits the host can’t be trusted not to cheat at its own World Cup.
A place where foreign fans – especially gay ones – must worry about their own safety because of the threat of government-affiliated mobs.
Has there ever been an occasion where a global sporting event has awarded to less deserving hosts? The most obvious historical parallel to Russia 2018 would be the Berlin Olympics of 1936, which Hitler turned into a grotesque celebration of National Socialism. But where this comparison fails is that the IOC awarded the Olympics to Berlin in 1931 – two years before the Nazis came to power. Fifa, meanwhile, knew fine well the character of Putin when they sold him the World Cup. They knew exactly what it would be used for.
Hands up who’s heard of Godwin’s law?
Keep politics out of sport, say some. But what could be more political than allowing the world’s most popular sporting event to be used as a showpiece by the world’s most dangerous man?
And it wasn’t, of course, an error of judgment made in good faith. Qatar bought its World Cup, that much we know. Russia almost certainly did too. The only reasons we don’t have proof are that we didn’t have a leaker, like Qatar, and that Russia mysteriously destroyed all their computers. But if you’re watching the Fifa trial in New York it’s clear that, if Russia didn’t pay bribes to win its World Cup, then its representatives were about the only people in Fifa acting honestly over the last decade.
Qatar, also a human rights violator and propagator of corruption, has been engaged in a long-running and expensive campaign of persuasion to the effect that the World Cup is an engine for change. Russia, though, hasn’t made even token efforts to appease critics. No one tells Putin what to do. With just over six months till kick-off, the idea of any significant political improvement in Russia is unimaginable. And so what then are we waiting for? There’s ample reason to refuse to have anything to do with this World Cup.
If you think football’s showpiece event shouldn’t be corruptly bought for the glorification of dictators, why aren’t you boycotting?
If you think the World Cup shouldn’t happen in stadia built by forced labour, why aren’t you boycotting?
If you think the World Cup shouldn’t be hosted by the world’s leader in sports doping, why aren’t you boycotting?
If you think the World Cup shouldn’t take place in a country where political protest, being gay or being a foreign football fan can get you beaten or killed, why aren’t you boycotting?
And, finally, if you think that global football isn’t going to properly reform while corruption pays, why aren’t you boycotting?
Unless you really don’t care about any of these issues, chances are that your answer is, “it won’t make a difference.”
And it’s true that it’s too late to stop Russia 2018. But it’s not too late to take a stand, to push for reform and to help shame football and its greed.
Why? Because Fifa’s finances depend almost entirely on World Cup TV and sponsorship revenue, and those revenues are under threat.
Broadcasters are still ponying up the cash, because they’ve somehow managed to hold the line that broadcasting – unlike sponsoring – is a morally neutral activity. But commercial partners are shying away. Barely six months to go, and Fifa is scrabbling around desperately for sponsors.
The leaders of Russia and Qatar may be beyond shame, but, like so many powerful people, they are deeply wounded by humiliation. If Russia is poorly watched, Putin will be embarrassed and Qatar will fear similar unwanted attention. Most of all, though, the already small number of sponsors willing to cosy up to Fifa will shrink further. And then, finally, pressure will begin to be applied to the one place where Fifa can be hurt – its bank account.
Time and again Fifa has been shown to be a hydra of corruption. Virtually every senior executive of the last thirty years has been exposed as corrupt and had to step down. Yet, when you look from a photo of Blatter to Infantino, as one obscure, bald, Swiss functionary steps into the shoes of another, you do not get an overwhelming impression of change.
Custodians of the World Cup.
Fifa is an enormous criminal enterprise which has unilaterally enclosed world football and now charges fees and accepts bribes to access it. Its main responsibility, the oversight and awarding of the World Cup, is a relatively small task that in no way justifies the number of staff it has or the billions of pounds the organisation extorts from sponsors, hosts and broadcasters. And, above all, Fifa is beyond reform. It needs to be abolished completely and replaced by a new world football body.
Fifa, seemingly, can ride out an almost unlimited number of corruption scandals, but there’s one thing it has no defence to: a World Cup that no one wants to pay for. If Russia’s World Cup fails, then the future of Qatar 2022 – and of Fifa itself – are up for grabs.
Now is the time to act. Like the Olympics, the World Cup is already too big and too expensive for democratic nations to host. As the tournament is expanded to 48 teams, it will necessarily become a circus tour of dictatorships, interrupted only occasionally by huge, continental joint-bids. This is no way to run the world’s game.
So, write to your broadcaster and let them know you won’t be watching. Write to the World Cup sponsors and tell them you won’t buy from them while they support corrupt organisations and countries.
Official sponsors of corruption, torture, murder and repression next summer.
And then, above all, make a plan for the summer.
Missing out on the World Cup will be a bind. You will be tempted to watch. Especially when England have their one good half of football.
Psychologists tell us that, if you want to do something necessary but unpleasant, it helps to commit early and announce it. Also, though, it helps to have a distraction in place.
If you haven’t booked something yet, spend Christmas finding the best deal you can on a holiday next June. Get some brochures and get an early bird discount. Reward yourself for doing the right thing.
Because boycotting is the right thing to do.
Somethings are more important than the World Cup.
The future of football is one of them.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.